On the bus.

23 08 2007

“Miss,” the bus fare collector calls from the front of the 2.49. “This is the last stop.”

“I know,” I tell him. And lying, I say, “I fell asleep. I forgot to get off at my stop.”

He laughs a quick “ha,” like he’s heard this story before, and then sits down to wait for the driver, who’s stepped off the bus and left the engine running. Out the window in the fading light, I notice a sorvete shack that also is selling popcorn and salgados. It is built beneath the awning of two thin trees impossibly growing from the dry red earth in a part of Campinas I’ve never seen or heard of before right now. Besides the fare collector, I’m the only one on the bus, and over the past hour, I’ve seen the insides of the bus swell or diminish every 500 yards, opening its doors to accept another passenger or to cough one out. I’ve been sitting in the same window seat and watching the left hand side of the city and noticing things.

I talked a lot today at school. So much, in fact, that when I got on the bus to go home, I closed my eyes and realized I didn’t want to get off of it. A couple of weeks ago, I’d asked another bus fare lady how many minutes it would be to a particular ponto de onibus two blocks from my apartment on a different street and she’d told me about a half hour. An extra half hour today sounded good. I didn’t want to move and I didn’t want to talk, and the best possible scenario would have been to just sit on the bus and let it carry me. I leaned my head against the window, pulled my sunglasses down over my eyes, and watched the streets and motorcycles and fruit stands go by, past my usual bus stop, and on and into the center of the city.

Through it we drove, stopping frequently, then driving for stretches along the major avenidas. When the time between stops grew longer and longer, and when the familiar sights of Campinas left the window and welcomed, instead, a flatter landscape with one-story buildings instead of the tall predios I’ve grown accustomed to, I knew I was far away from my home. Eventually we turned off a major street and onto a smaller, narrower one. I saw, out of the right side of the bus, a feature in the land that looked like it had been pushed straight up from the middle of the earth. It was an enormous flat black wall of rock, dark and straight, the length of ten football fields tapering in at either end, and 500 feet straight up. The land before it was flat and green, and the sharp angle of the formation looked so unfamiliar, so out of place, so different from the gentle curves and hills I’ve come to know in my area. I couldn’t help but stare out the window and wonder about how it got there.

In this neighborhood the houses are one story. They are all made of a white or tan or pink concrete, have orange tile roofs, and are surrounded by concrete walls and wrought iron fences. They are pushed one against another and line the streets so that each street looks identical to the next and it’s not long before I don’t care to keep them separate. I start to look for people. Here, there are a few. They walk together on the black and grimy white mosaic stone sidewalks, some helping old men walk by holding them by the elbow, others toting home white bags of groceries and laundry detergents, walking just as slowly as the old men, their ankles and feet swollen from long days of working. Reaching the ponto final and the sorvete shack in the gathering dusk I am excited to be returning on the same route, to see the other side of the street from my single seat. After a minute of waiting for the bus driver to return to his seat, we drive away again and I am off to noticing more.

Two boys with smiles and shouts chase each other on a nearby street that’s lined with trash and trees. One carries a long branch that’s recently fallen and has lit the end of it on fire. He stops and holds it up and we are driving away so he will stay like that in my mind: a little boy holding a stick on fire, a gender bending Statue of Liberty. We pass barzinho after barzinho, some built outside around shacks, others with store fronts. No matter the structure of the bar, each has its own set of colorful plastic tables and chairs, with advertisements for Skol or Brahma or Antarctica beer stickered on the blue or yellow or red furniture. Men sit around in each and every bar, gathering with each other at these plastic tables. They sit back, relaxed, with a large beer in the middle to share with however many others, small glass cups clustering around the tall beer. The bars are quiet, and they are filled entirely with men. And the women? Where are the women? I see them occasionally working in hair salons.

We are on Avenida Transamazonica, the sign says. Overhead I can make out thick wires carrying electricity out from the city central to these flat areas. Tall buildings are strange out here, just like that flat black rock formation. I count twenty apartment buildings like the ones I see from my porch. “Twenty is nothing,” I think. From my porches, I can’t see out into the distance because of how many tall buildings there are.

The windows are open on the bus and along with a breeze, I smell new trash. Not sweet enough to be old and potent. It is the kind that lingers just enough for me to identify the scent of rotting vegetables and then it’s gone, and so are we, headed back into recognizable territory. I see ahead of us the familiar blue Itau bank sign on top of a building in Centro. It is the same blue Itau bank sign I can see from my living room that tells me the time on a 24-hour scale and will announce the temperature in digital Celsius every few seconds. The clock says 18:27 and I have been on the bus for nearly two hours. It occurs to me, something about number lines. If this bus route were a number line from 1-10, I’ve been traveling on the part to and from school that lies on the line from 9 to 9.5, making the occasional foray to 10, which is Shopping Iguatemi. I had no idea about 1-9. But now I do.

“Miss,” the fare collector calls my attention again. “Where are you getting out?”

But I am caught off guard. I’ve been looking so intently at the sights around me, ignoring the insides of the bus for so long that I don’t hear or understand him correctly. “I’m from the United States,” I say softly. And then understand him when he begins to ask me to repeat myself. “I’m sorry,” I shake my head as if to shake the Portuguese ones awake. “I’m getting off at the Prefetura.” City Hall. He returns to the front to tell the driver, and I sink with embarrassment into my seat. I wish I could be as strong and unshakable as that rock formation on the outskirts of the city, but instead I feel as if the other passengers are seeing me as I saw the rock: strange and out of place. How did she get here, I think they wonder.

As we take a few familiar turns onto streets I finally recognize, I see a man and a woman kissing. He wears a red shirt, she’s in white. They are kissing with abandon in a single window above the street. Their dark-haired heads do not part from the closeness of their kiss while he reaches his hand down to place it on her hips and lower. As we drive away, I notice that she takes his hand and moves it up to her back.

The squealing brakes and grinding gears bring us back, at last, to the Prefetura and I descend from the steps and onto Avenida Anchieta glad to be back in a place I recognize. The portero from my building tells me when I arrive, like always, that I have no mail, and, like always, I say, “Maybe tomorrow” as I walk into the elevator. I toss my school bag down near the door when I open my door on the 10th floor and kick off my shoes into a pile of my week’s footwear. Gathering my sighs from the day I exhale them and begin writing.

“Miss,” the bus fare collector calls from the front of the 2.49. “This is the last stop.”




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